V. I.   Lenin

Certain Features of the Historical Development of Marxism[1]

Published: Zvezda, No. 2, December 28, 1910. Signed: V. Ilyin. Published according to Zvezda text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, [1974], Moscow, Volume 17, pages 39-44.
Translated: Dora Cox
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
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Our doctrine—said Engels, referring to himself and his famous friend—is not a dogma, but a guide to action. This classical statement stresses with remarkable force and expressiveness that aspect of Marxism which is very often lost sight of. And by losing sight of it, we turn Marxism into something one-sided, distorted and lifeless; we deprive it of its life blood; we undermine its basic theoretical foundations—dialectics, the doctrine of historical development, all-embracing and full of contradictions; we undermine its connection with the definite practical tasks of the epoch, which may change with every new turn of history.

Indeed, in our time, among those interested in the fate of Marxism in Russia, we very frequently meet with people who lose sight of just this aspect of Marxism. Yet, it must be clear to everybody that in recent years Russia has under gone changes so abrupt as to alter the situation with unusual rapidity and unusual force—the social and political situation, which in a most direct and immediate manner determines the conditions for action, and, hence, its aims. I am not referring, of course, to general and fundamental aims, which do not change with turns of history if the fundamental relation between classes remains unchanged. It is perfectly obvious that this general trend of economic (and not only economic) evolution in Russia, like the fundamental relation between the various classes of Russian society, has not changed during, say, the last six years.

But the aims of immediate and direct action changed very sharply during this period, just as the actual social   and political situation changed, and consequently, since Marxism is a living doctrine, various aspects of it were bound to become prominent.

In order to make this idea clear, let us cast a glance at the change in the actual social and political situation over the past six years. We immediately differentiate two three year periods: one ending roughly with the summer of 1907, and the other with the summer of 1910. The first three-year period, regarded from the purely theoretical standpoint, is distinguished by rapid changes in the fundamental features of the state system in Russia; the course of these changes, moreover, was very uneven and the oscillations in both directions were of considerable amplitude. The social and economic basis of these changes in the “superstructure” was the action of all classes of Russian society in the most diverse fields (activity inside and outside the Duma, the press, unions, meetings, and so forth), action so open and impressive and on a mass scale such as is rarely to be observed in history.

The second three-year period, on the contrary, is distinguished—we repeat that we confine ourselves to the purely theoretical “sociological” standpoint—by an evolution so slow that it almost amounted to stagnation. There were no changes of any importance to be observed in the state system. There were hardly any open and diversified actions by the classes in the majority of the “arenas” in which these actions had developed in the preceding period.

The similarity between the two periods is that Russia underwent capitalist evolution in both of them. The contradiction between this economic evolution and the existence of a number of feudal and medieval institutions still remained and was not stifled, but rather aggravated, by the fact that certain institutions assumed a partially bourgeois character.

The difference between the two periods is that in the first the question of exactly what form the above-mentioned rapid and uneven changes would take was the dominant, his tory-making issue. The content of these changes was bound to be bourgeois owing to the capitalist character of Russia’s evolution; but there are different kinds of bourgeoisie. The middle and big bourgeoisie, which professes a more or less   moderate liberalism, was, owing to its very class position, afraid of abrupt changes and strove for the retention of large remnants of the old institutions both in the agrarian system and in the political “superstructure”. The rural petty bourgeoisie, interwoven as it is with the peasants who live “solely by the labour of their hands”, was bound to strive for bourgeois reforms of a different kind, reforms that would leave far less room for medieval survivals. The wage-workers, inasmuch as they consciously realised what was going on around them, were bound to work out for them selves a definite attitude towards this clash of two distinct tendencies. Both tendencies remained within the frame work of the bourgeois system, determining entirely different forms of that system, entirely different rates of its development, different degrees of its progressive influence.

Thus, the first period necessarily brought to the fore—and not by chance—those problems of Marxism that are usually referred to as problems of tactics. Nothing is more erroneous than the opinion that the disputes and differences over these questions were disputes among “intellectuals”, “a struggle for influence over the immature proletariat”, an expression of the “adaptation of the intelligentsia to the proletariat”, as Vekhi followers of various hues think. On the contrary, it was precisely because this class had reached maturity that it could not remain indifferent to the clash of the two different tendencies in Russia’s bourgeois development, and the ideologists of this class could not avoid providing theoretical formulations corresponding (directly or indirectly, in direct or reverse reflection) to these different tendencies.

In the second period the clash between the different tendencies of bourgeois development in Russia was not on the order of the day, because both these tendencies had been crushed by the “diehards”, forced back, driven inwards and, for the time being, stifled. The medieval diehards[2] not only occupied the foreground but also inspired the broadest sections of bourgeois society with the sentiments propagated by Vekhi, with a spirit of dejection and recantation. It was not the collision between two methods of re forming the old order that appeared on the surface, but a loss of faith in reforms of any kind, a spirit of “meekness”   and “repentance”, an enthusiasm for anti-social doctrines, a vogue of mysticism, and so on.

This astonishingly abrupt change was neither accidental nor the result of “external” pressure alone. The preceding period had so profoundly stirred up sections of the population who for generations and centuries had stood aloof from, and had been strangers to, political issues that it was natural and inevitable that there should emerge “a revaluation of all values”, a new study of fundamental problems, a new interest in theory, in elementals, in the ABC of politics. The millions who were suddenly awakened from their long sleep and confronted with extremely important problems could not long remain on this level. They could not continue without a respite, without a return to elementary questions, without a new training which would help them “digest” lessons of unparalleled richness and make it possible for incomparably wider masses again to march forward, but now far more firmly, more consciously, more confidently and more steadfastly.

The dialectics of historical development was such that in the first period, it was the attainment of immediate reforms in every sphere of the country’s life that was on the order of the day. In the second period it was the critical study of experience, its assimilation by wider sections, its penetration, so to speak, into the subsoil, into the back ward ranks of the various classes.

It is precisely because Marxism is not a lifeless dogma, not a completed, ready-made, immutable doctrine, but a living guide to action, that it was bound to reflect the astonishingly abrupt change in the conditions of social life. That change was reflected in profound disintegration and disunity, in every manner of vacillation, in short, in a very serious internal crisis of Marxism. Resolute resistance to this disintegration, a resolute and persistent struggle to up hold the fundamentals of Marxism, was again placed on the order of the day. In the preceding period, extremely wide sections of the classes that cannot avoid Marxism in formulating their aims had assimilated that doctrine in an extremely one-sided and mutilated fashion. They had learnt by rote certain “slogans”, certain answers to tactical questions, without having understood the Marxist criteria for these   answers. The “revaluation of all values” in the various spheres of social life led to a “revision” of the most abstract and general philosophical fundamentals of Marxism. The influence of bourgeois philosophy in its diverse idealist shades found expression in the Machist epidemic that broke out among the Marxists. The repetition of “slogans” learnt by rote but not understood and not thought out led to the widespread prevalence of empty phrase-mongering. The practical expression of this were such absolutely un-Marxist, petty-bourgeois trends as frank or shamefaced “otzovism”, or the recognition of otzovism as a “legal shade” of Marxism.

On the other hand, the spirit of the magazine Vekhi, the spirit of renunciation which had taken possession of very wide sections of the bourgeoisie, also permeated the trend wishing to confine Marxist theory and practice to “moderate and careful” channels. All that remained of Marxism here was the phraseology used to clothe arguments about “hierarchy”, “hegemony” and so forth, that were thoroughly permeated with the spirit of liberalism.

The purpose of this article is not to examine these arguments. A mere reference to them is sufficient to illustrate what has been said above regarding the depth of the crisis through which Marxism is passing and its connection with the whole social and economic situation in the present period. The questions raised by this crisis cannot be brushed aside. Nothing can be more pernicious or unprincipled than attempts to dismiss them by phrase-mongering. Nothing is more important than to rally all Marxists who have realised the profundity of the crisis and the necessity of combating it, for defence of the theoretical basis of Marxism and its fundamental propositions, that are being distorted from diametrically opposite sides by the spread of bourgeois influence to the various “fellow-travellers” of Marxism.

The first three years awakened wide sections to a conscious participation in social life, sections that in many cases are now for the first time beginning to acquaint themselves with Marxism in real earnest, The bourgeois press is creating far more fallacious ideas on this score than ever before, and is spreading them more widely. Under these circumstances disintegration in the Marxist ranks is particularly   dangerous. Therefore, to understand the reasons for the inevitability of this disintegration at the present time and to close their ranks for consistent struggle against this disintegration is, in the most direct and precise meaning of the term, the task of the day for Marxists.


[1] Zvezda (The Star), in which this article appeared, was a Bolshevik legal newspaper, the forerunner of Pravda, published in St. Petersburg from December 16 (29), 1910 to April 22 (May 5), 1912 (at first weekly, then from January 1912 twice and from March, three times a week). On February 26 (March 10), 1912, No. 1 of Nevskaya Zvezda (Neva Star) was published at the same time as Zvezda, and, after the latter was closed down, continued its work. The last, the 27th issue of Nevskaya Zvezda was published on October 5(18), 1912.

Contributers to Zvezda were N. N. Baturin, K. S. Yeremeyev, N. G. Poletayev, M. S. Olminsky, and others, including Maxim Gorky, whom Lenin enlisted as a contributor. The pro-Party Mensheviks (Plekhanov’s group) contributed to Zvezda until the autumn of 1911. Lenin gave the paper ideological leadership from abroad, and together Zvezda and Nevskaya Zvezda published nearly fifty of his articles.

Under Lenin’s guidance the legal newspaper Zvezda became the militant paper of the Bolsheviks which defended the programme of the illegal Party Zvezda established workers’ correspondence on a broad scale, maintaining strong and regular contact with the workers. Some of its issues achieved a circulation of 50,000–60,000 copies.

The newspaper was the constant target of government repression; out of 96 issues of Zvezda and Nevskaya Zvezda, 39 were confiscated and 10 were subject to fines. Zvezda paved the way for the publication of the daily Bolshevik newspaper Pravda and on the very day it was closed down by the government the first issue of Pravda appeared.

[2] The “diehards” was the name given by Russian political literature to the extreme Right-wing representatives of the reactionary landlord class.

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